A Novice’s Lament

Anything is possible in the world of spirit.

There the universe is overturned. I used to think this glorious inversion was at the core of truth, that the opposite is always higher, that G-d loves underdogs in sports and metaphysics. This revolution, I thought, would take the modern world by storm.

I used to watch the latest studies for signs of Moshiach’s arrival; speed of light broken, event horizon a loose guitar string. The world will be perfect when we are all one. When we find the spirit in nature, competition, war, vying shoulder to abraded shoulder will disperse from the truth’s headlights.

In the the end, what is right will become what is easy. By His power we will mind our own business but no one will be poor, money will be dust yet life will not be boring, and those who die will truly deserve it.

All this, I know.

I can explain how G-d will reveal himself and why he concealed himself in the first place.

I can explain matter and form and placing the refined before the coarse and how all sin is madness and how not sinning is (not rational; that would be an insufficient reversal, but rather) suprarational.

I can throw out triplets like cardsharps slicing melons from twenty feet — immanence, transcendence, their unity; illogical laws, logical laws, testimonies; man, woman, creator; NissanIyyarSivan; infinitude, limitation, He Himself.

I can outline for you the difference between philosophy, Kabbalah, and mysticism. I can show you the best footnotes of the sublime Hadranim. I have read that letter of the Rebbe, and I have opinions on its interpretation. I learn the sichos in the original Yiddish. I pronounce the words correctly.

I understand the role of the BTs and the FFBs and I don’t seriously undervalue either. I have found my own personal metaphors for many concepts and have memorized and delivered discourses before masters. I have thought of what I learned before and during prayer; I know the supremacy of action of speech and even thought; I am aware of the qualities of the simple man, that they far exceed my learning’s worth.

I know very specifically why someone always arguing against the alternative will at best be mediocre at pursuing his own path, and I know how to argue anyway. I have learned my own weaknesses in so many ways, found my worst in unexpected places, seen those who are more firmly on the path, who have it together and cannot exist even propositionally in the dark and worldly planes I sometimes tread.

I have logged morning and evening hours with the discourses and read Likkutei Dibburim on hard days. I have wrapped people in Tefillin, sung niggunim, comforted friends, rebukes acquaintances, listened to teachers, challenged farbrengers, played the skeptic and the believer, poured and drank, remembered storied with the names. I was close with good students and iconoclasts, valued principle and family, and even managed to sometimes not take myself too seriously.

Anything is possible in this world.

Except having a master, a ruler, a lord.

Except having a

God

over

me.

The Mistake Not To Make In 2017

The mistake not to make in 2017 is the mistake of thinking we know what’s going to happen, or, more precisely, that it makes any difference whether we know what’s going to happen or not.

This should not even be possible for a Chassid. Kabbalah is, if it is learned badly, gnostic, platonic, and reductionist; a learner can convince themselves that they are gaining knowledge of the secret undergirdings of the creation, knowledge that can be used in some practical way. These are the patterns; these are the rules that bind the way things work.

Philosophy, on the other hand, does not claim to know of a priori categories from which everything is built with little variance; philosophy is essentially at liberty to follow the evidence where it leads, and if it leads to a place that we cannot know, we can at least be certain of the truth of what we don’t know.

Chassidus is an unfair, paradoxical melding; it says that we can be what we cannot know and we can use all that strange, intervening Kabbalah to get there. Chassidus says that it’s all about G-d, but G-d wanted it to, in a sense, be all about us, and so condescended to make a world that runs parallel to our structures in every way which in turn run parallel to His chosen mode of expression which means that the place which is furthest from him is not so different from one facet of his infinite truth. Chassidus says that the Darwinists have it backward, that it is not that something is True because it happens to survive long enough but that life itself is the truth which is following G-d’s plans.

So much for all of the inevitables, the things that must be, the Kabbalah, with its forms and faces and spheres, the spiritual blueprint of the world that allows too many students to mistake the map for the landscape and assume that the world actually IS predictable.

But the joke was on us; the Kabbalah is just the post-hoc interstitial stuff, the logical outgrowth; “I wish to create a terrible, dark thing called a world, but I wish to dwell there as well, on its terms — I had better create some sort of blueprint, so that all my pieces can find their way back…”

No, our reality is more like philosophy, which seems mundane when “follow the evidence wherever it leads” includes only the broad, stable categories but grows increasingly tumultuous when “the evidence” includes independent beings with wills of their own. Indeed, this mode, in which G-d allows Himself to consider things purely on their own terms, is what allowed the world of Tohu to arise, unsustainable, wild, real, the short-long path, similar to G-d but not close to Him, just like an “independent” human being, just like a world that, with man at the reins, can shoot off at a moment’s notice into the wild unknown.

It turns out that G-d and what He creates in his image are not rule-followers by nature; they do as they please; they create. The world is full of madness and randomness and unpredictability, and (to the horror of the badly-learned Kabbalah) he who knows that he does not know is wisest of all.

And so, according to all the “right” thinking, the “religious” thinking, the rules that all dead things follow, 2016 was just some arbitrary bound, a meaningless set of time signifying nothing of great significance. But we are not dead things, and in some sense a significant time has passed; many of us have felt it, cursed it.

I entered this year with hubris; forgot my place and the place of my chosen discipline. We are not here to understand it — on this, at least, the Darwinists may agree. We are here to take our potential for doing whatever we damn well please and actualizing it in selflessness; we are gods set free with the greatest faith of all time, the faith G-d has that we will choose to be servants to him than deities over our own worlds.

Until we reach that unity and there is only One Will in this domain, literally anything can happen, and this year, it did. We were certain; we thought it could not be; just as certainly, it came to pass.

The reaction is not to cry over our own uncertainty like a first-year student whose Sephiros chart does not match all thirteen tribes.

The reaction is joyous, rapturous awe; the happiest feeling in the world, to lose ourselves and find some truth instead, to remember that we are not the creators and we do not understand.

The mistake of 2016 was to think we could understand.

The lesson for 2017 is to give up more easily, to have faith, to trust, to be willing to follow it wherever it leads.

Just like He does.

He’s A Human Being

Depression cannot kill Robin Williams, because Robin Williams is life. Put on a frenzied recording. Watch his jittery action. Feel the energy and listen to its message. It tells you the world is poetry, that there’s magic in this box of rain, that our lives can be tender and hilarious and full of wonder.

Depression cannot kill Robin Williams because depression is a stone. Depression is like a juice box, or a cotton swab, and can do nothing. Some might get upset at this point and say, no, depression is like cancer. Fine, say it’s like cancer. But, know: cancer cannot kill Robin Williams.

Depression cannot kill Robin Williams because Robin Williams is a person, and a person is a king or a queen, and lives and dies with honor. So when you say depression kills, know that you explain one thing while destroying another.

Depression cannot kill Robin Williams because it is neither G-d nor Robin Williams. If that kind man decided he would rather die, perhaps we would stand in his way. Perhaps we would say he’s selfish. Perhaps he is; people do selfish things all the time. But with all the gravity and the glory and the hot disgust that is our proud lot, he acted.

But if he had no choice in the matter, compelled by forces beyond his frail limits, then let it be known that depression did not kill him; a belt did not kill him; drugs did not kill him. These are dumb rocks and deserve not the praise. G-d took his life, because it was his time, and though we don’t like it or understand it, someone did it, not something, and that is dignified.

Let him live.

 

Image from Flickr. CCBY2.0.

Again

I don’t even really like my job. It’s tedious and annoying. I live and work in a Jewish academy in the middle of nowhere (it used to be a monastery), and my job is to record exactly who is in the study hall when learning is in session. The students range from seventeen to twenty and from immature to not-quite-mature.

So why am I in so much pain, leaving?

Life itself is the greatest of all pleasures. While it’s unchallenged, we don’t even realize we enjoy it. But try to take someone’s life away…

 

They’re sitting at a picnic table near the parking lot, this afternoon. One guy’s a free spirit, so free he resents the concept of punctuality and punctuality’s patron saint (at least in northern New Jersey), me. Another is quiet; we’ve probably shared three scattered words since the year began. One is studious, a perfect student, never late, too perfect for antics. There’s a guy who’s just “one of the guys,” the guys I was never part of.

I never disliked them, or liked them either. They were simply the faces (so many faces) who’d pass by in the hall, who’d eat in the lunch room, who’d play Frisbee or soccer during lunch breaks. We’d complain together constantly – there was a lot to complain about. Terrible school, badly run. The food – isn’t. Can you believe who’s in trouble? And for what? Why can’t they see what the problem actually is? We can’t wait to just get out of here…

I sit watching these guys at the table and, out of nowhere, I feel it. It’s the end of a good novel or TV show. It’s the open lockers and papers everywhere on a summer afternoon in high school. It’s the buses lined up faithfully on the last day of camp. And today, it’s the luggage rolling down the passage outside my room and the loaned books returned to my shelf by people who I realize I love, not because of anything they did but because they were there for a time, a part of my life, another long day washed under the bridge.

It’s not even the end of the year; they’re leaving for the holiday of Shavuos, the day we received G-d’s Torah on Mount Sinai. But after that it’s just two weeks, and then no matter what I do or where I go, it will be after, beyond, the rest.

I will not return to my home of three years. I’m not truly happy here, not anymore. I can accomplish things elsewhere and I need change and there’s a whole life to live outside these four walls, but this afternoon, when they were on those benches, I wanted to keep Shavuos in place and cling to this mediocrity with iron fingers, because it’s my mediocrity and I live here and not again, not again, not again. Not the parting, the endless beyond, the unbearable future without them and these hallways painted hospital white and the deer in the woods and late night 7-11 runs and the guy at the gas station whose stomach hangs out of his T-shirt and the boiled eggs and my mail in the back office and the long winters. Why must I do this again? Why do I have to taste the warming wind, watch these rooms drain of people, blood from a limb, and then gather my things and move once more?

I sometimes think that G-d is the pack you put on your shoulders as you must, again, walk down the road.

 

Van from my phone; Van Gogh from Wikipedia.

From a Dream, Shabbos Night, 18 January, 2014

Rude, I think, as the guy next to me physically claims two-thirds of the bench, leaving me to squeeze my wide frame into one corner and struggle not to fall off or elbow the jerk in the face as I pull my oxfords on, right, then left, and lace them, left, right. My mother and I are sitting back-to-back on one of those wide benches they have in JFK so there’s plenty of room for everyone to sit and put their shoes on after passing through security, but the geniuses at the planning department didn’t account for this gigantic specimen of a Southern father trying and failing to get his kids to quiet down as he buckles his boots, three rugrats orbiting him as if caught in his gravity field.

“Where do these people come from?” I ask my mother as we stride through the Terminal, searching for our gate, which is inevitably as far away from the security checkpoint as possible. Wherever one my access through the first thirty gates, neither we nor anyone we know have ever gone there.

“Just forget about it,” she says up at me. We make quite a pair. I’m 6’5″, she’s 5’6″;  in public, a suit jacket and a broad-brimmed fedora expand my silhouette to downright threatening dimensions, while her sweater and small purse somehow make her seem even smaller. I can be surly, especially when travelling and overwhelmed by crowds and loud noises; she’s quiet but a master of politeness, even friendliness, at least until we start getting the bureaucratic fake-smile-accompanying-bad-news stuff, in which case she introduces her wrath (which I know well) to new audiences. She walks at a quick pace, occasionally slipping through gaps in the foot traffic that would become tackle-takedowns if I attempted them; I have to swing wide for open waters and join her afterward.

We’re running late, and she’s secretly irritated about it. I’m always tardy, and she never is. I have tried to explain to her the joy of being late, the way in which G-d is open to those who themselves are open, and she always raises an eyebrow and tells me to save it for the other Rabbis. So when I went to sleep last night I wholly intended to submit to my mother’s preference: 5:30 reveille, 6:30 on the road, 7:00 at the airport, 8:30 flight. Due to the laws of physics pertaining only to alarm clocks we woke at 6:30 and now it’s 8:15 and I’m dodging one of those indoor cars they use to shuttle the elderly and the infirm around the terminal as my mother points at the square sign announcing Gate 2 as if it were the very stamp of imminent redemption. They’re already boarding, but the line is long, and we have never met anyone who is a medallion member or sits in zones one through seven; they must all fly to Walla Walla or something from those first thirty gates.

I need to use the restroom and I leave my heavy sandwich-laden backpack with my mother as I scramble back up the terminal. The sweat band of my hat is damp with nervous perspiration and I’m overheating in my four layers. I should have left my jacket with mom as well. The bathroom is closed for maintenance. Wonderful. I have no idea where to find another one until a kind elderly woman notes my distress and directs me to Sam’s Shoes, a large establishment right across the wide terminal hallway that has a restroom on premises. I make for the store, eyeing its dusty window display with anxiety. The interior is no better. It is a shoe store from a different country and a different age, recently deserted. Haphazard stacks of shoeboxes clutter the leather air. A counter messy with laces and rags sits in one corner next to a polishing chair whose back reaches the low ceiling. A door in the rear wall is labeled with the male and female bathroom symbols and I feel like a lummox as I drag through the skewed racks, nearly knocking something over at every corner.

Inching around the last bend, I almost walk straight into him. He is bent over, heaving boxes into place under a display of ghastly beige leather slip-ons festooned with maroon buckles. He wears a flannel shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and his aged, pockmarked face and bloodshot eyes are framed by mutton chops and a feathery moustache, both greying. A worn flat cap tops his head. He stares at me, unmoving, and I get the absurd sense that I am for some reason unwelcome in his store. I move with all my grace to slip past him and the heel of my shoe nips his. “Sorry,” I mutter and open the door to the ancient bathroom whose light is turned on by (Lord help us) pulling a chain. Once I’m done I wash my hands and pull the door closed behind me. I say the words of the Asher Yatzar, all thoughts of my creator driven from my head by the words “New York” and “Singapore” clattering out of the airport P.A. The man is not where he was before and I glance up to find him by the counter. I nod in the friendly but reserved way known to all introverts and begin picking my way toward the store’s exit which I can detect by a slight waft of air and a few rays of white light that manage to diffract around a tower of wafer-soled fashionable sell-out Steve Maddens.

I feel someone stepping on the heel of my shoe. I jump, turn around, and find him staring me straight in the eye, unflinching. I am afraid. I turn back to the exit and begin walking faster, and I feel another tug at my heel. I am almost at the exit as he steps on me again and this time pulls my shoe clean off as I hop into the foot traffic of the terminal, glad to be among people once more. My shoe comes skidding across the white tile, kicked by the stumpy man, hands akimbo, indignation on his face. A name tag at his chest reads “Sam.” I stick my foot in my shoe and my face in his face. I can feel myself towering over him impressively and my expression reads “what in the world is wrong with you.” He shoves me in the chest with both hands. He is surprisingly strong. I lose my balance and step back. The woman’s voice on the P.A. sounds impatient as she announces final boarding for my flight. I can’t imagine what my mother is doing.

“You stepped on me,” Sam says. His eyes don’t leave mine for a second. He is unbearably ugly.

“I said I was sorry,” I say, and it somehow sounds lame, even to me.

“No, now you are sorry,” he says, but he doesn’t smile. He is not saying it as I would, with self-effacement and humor, a gesture of goodwill. He is pleased by my discomfort. I can’t handle it and turn to go, but he grabs my forearm with an iron grip and pulls me down close to his face. I smell garlic on his breath. I ball my fist. He smiles with horrible, ruined teeth and lets me go. He looks up at me, chin sticking out, full of pride. I am suddenly certain, for some reason, that he is Jewish. An inescapable urge to embrace him sweeps over me, but he is already stepping away. He shakes his head, as if I will never understand, and he returns to his store.

My mother ushers me onboard, embarrassed to have held up the flight. I fall into my seat in a daze. It is for some reason unbearable to adjust the air conditioning nozzle, or to slip my book into the seat-back pocket in front of me, or to hear the safety demonstration. I put in earplugs and close my eyes.

I think of him for thirty thousand feet, and beyond.

Featured Image from Flickr